Old superstition comes true with tragic consequences

September 14, 2018

Ask any sailor and they will tell you it’s very bad luck to change the name of a ship once it’s been launched. This may just be superstition, but this week sees the anniversary of yet another boating disaster, this time involving a ship whose name was changed.

The paddle steamer, PS Bute, was launched in Scotland in the year 1865 and two years later she was sold to the Waterman’s Steam Packet Co., which operated on the River Thames in London. Her new owners didn’t like her Scottish name and renamed her SS Princess Alice. They kept her for three years and then she was sold on twice more in the next five years, her final owners being the London Steamboat Company. This firm used her as a pleasure steamer, taking people up and down the river from Britain’s capital to the coast and back.

In late August of 1878 the company advertised what they called a “Moonlight Trip” to Sheerness, a coastal resort in the county of Kent, with a stop at Gravesend, a town on the river. The ticket price was two shillings per person.

This was an extremely good price at the time and middle-and working-class Londoners flocked to buy tickets. The boat set out early on Sept. 3. It was a warm, bright day and the vessel was crowded with approximately 800 people on board, many of them women and children. They reached the mouth of the river and had an excellent day on the beach, enjoying the sea, the sand and the sights and sounds of the resorts before, at the end of the day, they returned to the ship to begin the trip back upriver against the current.

The sun set that day at around 20 minutes before seven and, approximately an hour after that, the Princess Alice was almost home, with its first stopping place, North Woolwich Pier, actually in sight. The evening was calm with a slight haze on the water and the temperature had dropped with the setting of the sun, causing many of the passengers to seek shelter either in the saloon or in rooms below deck.

There were a few other boats on the river and, coming downstream, taking advantage of the tidal flow, with engines at half-speed was a newly painted collier, the SS Bywell Castle. The local laws covering vessels on the river said that boats traveling in opposite directions should always pass port side to port side — in other words, with their left sides toward each other.

On the bridge of the Bywell Castle the captain, Captain Harrison, was accompanied by an experienced river pilot. The entry in the ship’s log says that they saw the mast head and navigation light of the Princess Alice coming toward them and changed course to pass the smaller ship. All would have been well but the paddle steamer was coming upriver against the tide, and in those days it was common practice to switch sides of the river to take advantage of areas of slack water.

The reason for what happened next we will never know, because Captain Grinstead of the Princess Alice did not survive. Whether he did not see the bigger ship, misjudged her speed or thought she was farther away, will forever remain a mystery; what is known is that the paddle steamer suddenly altered course and tried to pass across the bow of the heavier vessel.

The collier’s engines were immediately put full astern and her helm was hard over, but it was too late. The Bywell Castle’s bow slammed into the Princess Alice amidships. It was a heavy collision. The paddle steamer broke in two, the bow and stern rising, and in less than five minutes it sank out of sight beneath the other ship’s bow, taking most of its passengers with it.

Hundreds were thrown into the water. Boats were launched from Bywell Castle and one or two other ships while lifebelts, planks of wood and rope ends were thrown out for survivors to cling to. Most of those who were below when the collision occurred died due to overcrowding and the speed with which the ship went down. Bodies were found piled in doorways and companionways when the wreck was raised, and for weeks afterward boatmen on the river were fishing corpses out and taking them ashore for a reward of five shillings each.

There was no passenger list and so there was no count of how many actually died that night, but the figure was around 640, some of whom were among those who were pulled from the water alive. The reason for this was, in the year 1878, there was no protection for the environment back then and when the passengers were thrown from the ship they landed in water polluted with 75 million gallons of raw sewage that had been released into the river an hour before.

Many of the dead were never identified simply because whole families died together and there was no one left to say who they were. One woman, named Elizabeth Stride, claimed to have been one of the survivors of the sinking, although there was no proof of this. She would later go down in history as the third victim of Jack the Ripper.

Two separate enquiries were held. One found that the captains of both vessels were equally responsible for the disaster while the other placed the blame squarely on Captain Grinstead and the owners of the Princess Alice, saying the ship was overcrowded and under-manned, the lifesaving equipment was inadequate for the number on board and the captain should have taken evasive action. They also recommended that provision should be made for dumping sewage farther out to sea, although this was never implemented.

The disaster was Britain’s worst-ever boating catastrophe, but today it is mostly forgotten. There is a model depicting the collision in the National Maritime Museum and a rather sad sign on the riverbank that has been sprayed with graffiti by vandals. Untreated sewage is no longer poured into the River Thames.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.

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